A safe pair of hands

In business for more than three decades, Unigloves is cementing its place as a leader in the manufacture of hand protection products, and is pushing boundaries with a new sustainable range: BioTouch

Since 1989, protective products manufacturer Unigloves has been saving lives across the world by protecting hands and preventing the spread of disease. Beginning with two friends: Mr Lee, an engineer, and Mr. Ang, a teacher, who started manufacturing rubber gloves in Malaysia to support the increased demand following the Aids pandemic, the company first launched operations in Germany and the US, before expanding into five continents, supplying hand protection advice and products to over 50 countries.

Today, Unigloves produces the majority of the gloves that it sells within its group-owned factories. It’s a characteristic that’s unique among branded glove manufacturers, and that allows the company to achieve product consistency, exert greater control over its inventory and supply chain, and invest in research and development.

“Our product range is 100-percent focused on hand protection,” confirms Chris Wahlers, Managing Director, UK at Unigloves. “The majority of our competitors have diversified into other forms of PPE and industrial workwear, or have branched out into a broader range of disposable products. However, we feel there is still value in our specialist expertise, and plenty of room for innovation in the hand protection sector.”

One such innovation is BioTouch, a new glove containing biodegradable technology, designed to speed up the organic breakdown process. “With BioTouch, we’re able to achieve biodegradation of 90 percent in 490 days, as opposed to traditional nitrile gloves that can take up to 100 years,” Chris explains. “This new biodegrading technology is achieved thanks to an organic additive, which attracts microbes found in landfills, but does not impair the gloves’ performance or real-time shelf life.”

The development of the BioTouch gloves sits within Unigloves’ broader sustainability strategy – developed in partnership with the LifeWork Group – which sets out to establish the company as the best-in-class sustainability leader in the UK hand protection market. It’s indicative of the company’s collaborative mindset, one that it brings in equal measure to its product development.

“Most often, new ideas are customer-driven, but they can also originate from the team, suppliers, or new partners,” Chris tells us. “Although most of our manufacturing is done in-house, the market for hand protection is large, and we believe collaboration can be more efficient than competition, so we also include third-party producers in our NPD process.

“In addition to natural product evolution, and some new sustainable products, we are also working on two key concept projects relating to fast-growing sectors, which we hope to bring to fruition over the next 12 months,” Chris adds. “One is a technology developed with Cambridge University, to be incorporated into our medical products range. The other is a brand-new product to help capitalise on a fast-growing vertical.”

A constant throughout more than three decades of success, Malaysia continues to provide the core of the company’s operations, playing host to a total of four Unigloves factories. Nevertheless, as it looks to capitalise on a successful few years, the company is investing heavily in its footprint, as it works to expand its upstream and downstream ERP systems.

“Glove production lines are complex beasts, requiring input during design from architects, engineers, and technologists,” Chris comments. “Our newest lines are already very efficient, but still require significant human input, so we are continuing to invest to reduce our reliance on manual labour and automate our production with robotics.

“Given the global nature of our business, it’s also important for us to focus on synergies in our downstream distribution offices, where improving our operational efficiency is one of the six pillars of our strategy,” he goes on. “In the short term, this means consolidating back-office functions, warehousing, and logistics at a regional level, but in the medium-term it means global systems, AI-led innovation, and an international business strategy.”

Among its planned investments, the company is introducing a new PIM system. Intended to centralise Unigloves’ complete range of product data, it’s expected to provide distributors with real-time information, pushing product data across the company’s website, catalogues, and associated materials.

“It’s about improving consistency, and supporting our diversification of products, services, and regions,” Chris notes. “With our supply chain partners, our goal is always to make ourselves an integral part of their team. Some days we’re their category manager, some days their marketing team, and other days part of their sales team. We’re bringing leads, investing in co-marketing, and driving new products into the market.

“At the same time, we also work with our customers to truly understand their business and their problems,” he develops. “Through that, we can identify new and better ways to support them. This means a team of boots on the ground, getting into the detail with the users of the product.”

For Chris, it’s those boots on the ground who, ultimately, serve as Unigloves’ driving force. “A business is nothing without the people it’s made up of,” he insists. “Fortunately, that starts with the owners of the group, and Kevin Onah, who started our UK operations in 2002. They’ve been endlessly encouraging, and we try to encourage the same ethos in our team.

“We’re working with Diversio, the world’s first AI-based DEI platform, to ensure that Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are at the forefront of our people plan,” he continues. “Although we’re a team of almost 1000 globally, we’re still a family business, and we want people to be emotionally involved, even as our operations become more complex and process driven. As we’ve worked on developing our strategy, we’ve tried to encourage everyone to engage in that process, and feel that they are part of something larger than themselves.”

Looking ahead to the next five years, Chris is clear that Unigloves’ goal is to have its brand, people, products, and operations admired and regarded as influential, and to be a force for good in the hand protection market. “We’d like to expand our market presence in front of end-users, celebrate the work they do, and really impress upon them our expertise and desire to help protect their workforce,” he concludes. “We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to achieve greater presence amongst our customers and our distributor partners, broaden our geographic reach, drive further operational efficiency, and establish additional income streams.”

Products: Hand protection solutions